Saturday, August 11, 2012

Movie – American Splendor (2003)

The movie American Splendor is based on the series of graphic novels of the same name written by Harvey Pekar, as well as the graphic novel “Our Cancer Year” co-written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner.  As you will see in this movie, they are husband and wife.  These graphic novels are not about superheroes, but about Harvey’s life as a VA Hospital file clerk.  This film gets almost as “meta” as the movie Adaptation (2002).  It is simultaneously a “who is Harvey Pekar” movie, a commentary on underground comics, a commentary on the nature of fame, and an example of how an ordinary life can be just as extraordinary as anyone else’s.  Oh, and it’s also about making sure you pick the right kind of jellybean.

In the film we have Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis (Next Stop Wonderland) as Joyce Brabner, and Judah Friedlander (30 Rock) as Toby Radloff.  However, the real life Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Toby Radloff also appear as themselves, sometimes commenting on the events in the movie.  They are credited as “the real [name]”.

The real Harvey introduces his character – “OK. This guy here, he's our man, all grown up and going nowhere. Although he's a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he's lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and he's now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So, if you're the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day... guess what? You've got the wrong movie.”  The way the real Harvey delivers the lines also tells you a lot about him.

Giamatti then takes over the role.  We see him in the 1960s meet and befriend a man named Robert Crumb.  If you know anything about comics, you will recognize the name.  For those who don’t know who he is, Crumb was one of the pioneering Underground Comics creators.  It’s his later success that inspires Harvey to try his hand at writing comics.  He can’t draw worth a damn, though, so all he has are his ideas.  One day he shows them to Crumb, who is quite taken with them.  Crumb actually asks Harvey if he can illustrate some of them for him.  Harvey is about as close to happy as he has probably ever been in his life.

He self-publishes these comics over several years and this brings him to the attention of Joyce Brabner, who is a fan of them.  She contacts him, they exchange some letters, they meet, and a week later they are married.  He’s a unique guy, so you can figure that it would take a pretty unique woman to be with him.  My favorite line in the film is when the two meet face to face.  Harvey says to her, “You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy.”  According to the real Harvey and Joyce, that really happened.  Just to show they were made for each other, on their first date Joyce is the one who tells Harvey that they should just skip the dating part of the relationship and go right to the getting married part.

Included in the comics are Harvey’s friend Toby Radloff and some of the conversations the two of them have.  At one point during the film we see the real Harvey and the real Toby very seriously discussing the merits of different flavor jellybeans, while Giamatti and Friedlander look on in amusement.  It was a real exchange and according to Giamatti, he didn’t even know he was being filmed at the time because it was between takes.

The film adds another level with a scene of Giamatti as Harvey and Davis as Joyce sitting in an audience watching a play based upon Harvey’s American Splendor comics.  In the play, Donal Logue plays Harvey Pekar and Molly Shannon plays Joyce Brabner.  The real Harvey comments on how strange it was to see his life being portrayed by someone else in a play, then goes on to speculate on how much more strange it will be to watch this very movie when it comes out.  In actuality, Harvey and Joyce later wrote a follow-up graphic novel titled Our Movie Year that deals with their experiences.

Harvey’s acerbic comments on life in his comic bring him to the attention of David Letterman’s folks and he actually ends up going on the show several times in the 1980s.  Simultaneously, Mtv has latched onto Toby as an interesting “nerd” character and has placed him on their network doing various things.  Both of them become cult celebrity figures for a while.  Harvey gets fed up with Letterman’s refusal to speak out on the bad practices of his own network, so Harvey goes on the show and makes a complete jerk of himself to Letterman.  Needless to say, Letterman never had him on again.

In another blend of fantasy and real life, we see Giamatti backstage at Letterman’s show in character as Harvey, winding himself up to go out there and burn all his bridges.  When we see Harvey walk on stage and confront Letterman, it’s the real Harvey Pekar.  It’s not the actual footage from the incident, though.  Twenty years later Letterman was still holding a grudge and refused to allow that footage to be used in the film.  It had to be recreated.

Because of Harvey’s small amount of notoriety in the 1980s, Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) tried to adapt the comic American Splendor into a movie, but he wasn’t a big enough name yet.

Both Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis do great jobs in their roles.  I feel that Giamatti especially deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance.  When he didn’t receive one that was when I started thinking that there may be something to that rumor that the Academy hates him.  The film did end up getting an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it did win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

I mentioned my favorite line up above.  My favorite soliloquy by the real Harvey Pekar occurred when he talked about how one day he noticed another “Harvey Pekar” in the phone book.  He had a really unique name, so he wondered who this other man was and what his story was.  The man died without Harvey ever meeting him.  Harvey said this made him sad and concludes by asking, “Who is Harvey Pekar?”  That is really the overarching theme of his work in the comic and in this film.

I have to say, this movie made me a lot more interested in reading the American Splendor comics.  I picked up several of the collections and they do fill in a lot more about who Harvey Pekar was.  I say “was” because Harvey passed away July 12, 2010 from cancer.  The 2003 movie includes scenes where he has his first bout with cancer, which he wins.  In a parallel to the soliloquy in the movie, when I read about his death I felt sad.  Even though I had never met the man, I felt I had come to know him some via his comics and this movie.  If you want to meet a truly interesting individual then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

           DVD                  Instant Video

   Graphic Novel       Our Cancer Year      Our Movie Year


  1. I really enjoyed this film a lot. I like Giamatti in it and I love the scenes with the real Harvey Pekar. There's a line between filmed reality and actual reality here that this film crosses over and over. It's a subtle form of tweaking with what film means, and I like that it's subversive in that way, too.

    1. I agree on liking the breaking of the boundaries. Thanks.

  2. Nice review, Chip. I would also rate this four stars. This movie hit all the right notes for me, regarding Pekar the writer and Pekar the persona.

    My favorite line from the movie was when Pekar (Giamatti) referred to his reflection in the mirror as a "reliable disappointment."

    1. Thanks. I had forgotten that line. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  3. This is definitely my favorite Paul Giamatti role. In fact, it's the role that made me really admire his talent.

    1. I'd have to check his IMDB listings, but off the top of my head I think it was the first mostly dramatic role that he had.